To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918
by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2011), hardcover, 448 pages
This is an excellent history of a little-explored subject: how society treats dissenters and pacifists during wartime. World War I is a fitting backdrop since war fever drove events and war resistance wrought greater changes than perhaps in any other war.
Long before 1914, everyone in Europe knew war was coming, and many worked hard to prevent it. Proponents of free trade tried to build public prosperity that would make war too expensive to contemplate. Feminists sought women’s suffrage because they believed that once women could vote, they would never elect politicians who would send nations to war. And socialists sought to unite workers across national boundaries so that when the call to war came, the rulers wouldn’t be able to get their soldiers to fight each other.
All those efforts came to naught, however, once Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and the threats and ultimatums began to fly. Even though socialism had been on the rise, especially in Germany, socialists and even pacifists ran off to enlist once their nations came under threat of attack. And most of the suffragettes began support the war effort for the higher purpose of winning the right to vote; they sought to prove themselves useful political allies, and indeed women got the vote in Britain in 1918. Even public intellectuals who had railed against war fever now supported the war, telling pacifist holdouts like Bertrand Russell that to resist going to war once it had started was to resist natural instinct. The instinct that prevailed was the instinct to fight beside one’s fellow countrymen, not the members of one’s class as the socialists had always envisioned.
During the war, pacifists were shunned and derided, and many went to prison—though far fewer in Britain, which did not want to create martyrs, than in other countries. The fear of revolution was constantly on the minds of leaders, but democracies like Britain had an advantage in that antiwar sentiment could be expressed at the ballot box (at least by voting-eligible males) rather than through riots. There were many strikes in Britain and other nations, but they never stopped the war effort. And while opposition to the war did lead to revolution in Tsarist Russia in 1917—resulting in what all the pacifists of Europe wanted, the withdrawal of a great power from the war—revolution did not spread to other countries with less repressive regimes. Even where revolution could have taken root, the suffering of the millions of dead and wounded soldiers had been so great that nobody wanted to lay down arms and tell the wounded that their sacrifice had been for nothing.
It was the brotherhood of war among soldiers fighting side by side, plus nationalist feeling among the public, that kept the war going. Soldiers were loyal to each other and disdained those who didn’t fight, despite being completely cynical about the outcome of the war. While antiwar protests arose among the Allies as the war dragged on, when the German offensive of 1918 sent the Allies into retreat, antiwar sentiment in Allied nations evaporated. Dissent was a luxury only those who foresaw victory could afford.
Sadly, the victors learned nothing from the war, as Bertrand Russell noted when he saw that the victory celebrations in London in 1918 were nearly identical to those that had occurred upon Britain’s going to war in 1914. War resisters did gain respect after the war, once the public realized the war’s huge costs. Nevertheless, the public in Allied nations felt an overwhelming need to punish Germany for starting the war. That led to the humiliating Treaty of Versailles that hurt German national pride and stoked Germany’s need for revenge. Allied leaders knew the treaty would lead to another war, but once again, they could do nothing about it, and World War II ensued 20 years later.
In the end, we’re left with many questions: Is there anything that can stand against what Chris Hedges (War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, 2002) calls “the plague of nationalism”? How can rationalism prevail when even those who oppose nationalist violence are so tribal themselves that their favorite song is “Which Side Are You On”? Can we all come together when those who point out that patriarchy leads to violence still insist that we adopt labels like “feminist” and ridicule those who don’t? And are we humans still so tribal that we think first and foremost not in terms of right vs. wrong, cost vs. benefit, or sanity vs. insanity but in terms of us versus them? Do all our thoughts still flow from that?
If so, then there’s not much point in trying to end what has become for us in the United States a never-ending state of war. If (to quote Hedges again) war is a force that gives us meaning, then we’ll never see the end of war until we evolve beyond our tribal roots and find a greater meaning than the one we find in excluding and destroying “the other.”